It was a given that actor Tilda Swinton would be a sensation at the recently concluded Dhaka Lit Fest, now in its seventh year. Even if you didn’t know anything about The White Witch from the Narnia series, the androgynous Englishwoman was bound to make heads turn. But there was no accounting for her warmth as she happily gathered together fans for a selfie (“a snap”) and agreed to do an impromptu session. Tilda’s readings from a John Berger acceptance speech followed by four short films, in one of which she and John are protagonists, remain the stuff of powerful memory.
It was a given that Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said Esber, or Adonis, would be a sensation. He is to the Arab world what TS Eliot is to the English, and has “exerted a seismic influence” on Arab poetry. So when Adonis, at the inaugural said the Koran has no poetry and that it is against poetry, at least one Bangladeshi writer and impresario walked out of the hall. “The Koran is poetry. The ‘sura fateha’ is poetry… Bismillah-e-rehman-e-raheem… the ‘sura yaseen’ is poetry… the names of Allah are alliteration, poetry,” said Niaz Zaman, her shoulders shaking with passion. Adonis explained himself later. “All monotheistic religions, whether Islam or Christianity, do not allow poetry because they believe they are supreme. When there is one God, where is the place for poetry?”
It was not a given that Ben Okri’s conversation with Jerry Pinto would be a sensation or that The Famished Road would yield a house-full of searching questions both about the book and its form. Or that 29-year-old Anuk Arudpragasam would win the DSC best South Asian literature prize for The Story of a Brief Marriage. Or that Stephen Alter, the self-effacing writer from Mussoorie, with In the Jungles of the Night and 16 other novels behind him, would charm the Lit Fest with his tales.
It is conversations like these that have become the underpinning of the Dhaka Lit Fest, organised by the holy trinity of K Anis Ahmed, Sadaf Saaz and Ahsan Akbar. The model, of course, is the highly successful Jaipur Lit fest, which may be becoming a victim of its runaway success. Mountain Echoes, the conversation piece set in the jewel of the Bhutan Himalayas, is so special that it’s easy to store those magical memories in the cloud. Galle in Sri Lanka belongs to the lotus-eaters’ world, while the Karachi and Lahore versions in Pakistan are out of bounds for wannabe
Best to catch a flight or train or bus to Dhaka every winter, to witness first-hand the clear and peculiar amalgamation of Bengal and Islam, a leaching that has taken place over the centuries. At the Lit Fest venue, you hear a babel of tongues — the Eastern Bengali, or Bangaal, is wonderfully aspirated (“jaite se”, to go, is sinuously different from “jaachhe”, going, in West Bengal’s Bengali), while the English is exacerbated with elongated vowels so wide you can almost see the mouth of the Padma delta.
The session on “The Bengalis : A Race Divided,” with Sudeep Chakravarti (The Bengalis), Kushanava Choudhury (The Epic City), historian Ananya Kabir (Partition’s Post Amnesias) and Bangladeshi-Swedish historian Ikhitisad Ahmed (Yours, Etcera), is overflowing at the brim. Naturally, the conversation has just begun, at the end of the hour.
So why do the sessions in Bengali draw the largest crowds? The easy answer is — Bangladesh is still in the middle of a ferment that encompasses identity, religion and language.
The questions of 1947 and 1971 are still so hotly debated — the Lit Fest’s location in the Bangla Academy complex, one major site for the Language Movement of the early ’50s is significant, as is the huge rally by prime minister Sheikh Hasina in the park just outside, celebrating her father, Bangabandhu Mujibur Rehman’s glorious March 1971 speech which was instrumental in then East Pakistan’s struggle for a new nation.
Words. Language. Communication. Speech. The stories of Bangladesh are alive and well. But listening isn’t enough. Just watching is a story of its own. Young girls dressed in all the colours of the sari — hot pink georgette, cream Dhaka Muslin, Kantha embroidery, the geometrical motifs of the Jamdani — who insist on wrapping their heads in the same gay fabric. Rarely do you espy the unnerving Saudi Black — although I did a couple, and asked why. “Oh, I like it and it keeps me safe inside,” said the American drawl inside the ‘niqab’.
Bangladeshi cultural czarina Lubna Mariam, who stood waving flags at the barricades in 1971, explains that Bangla, the language of the freedom struggle, is now acquiring the dimensions of a crisis. “Nobody speaks English anymore. And when young people do, they either imitate Hollywood sitcoms or go to more expensive schools where the teachers have been taught abroad.” The Dhaka Lit Fest is one way of going global.